Photographs kept at underground federal records center in Lenexa contribute to Middle-Eastern archaeological research

An aerial shot of Aleppo, Syria, taken by a U-2 spy plane in November 1959.

In the old mines below the city of Lenexa, the federal government stores classified records in a frigid vault nicknamed the Ice Cube.

Some of those records — aerial photographs of the Middle East taken by the Central Intelligence Agency from U2 spy planes in the 1950s and ’60s — were declassified in 1997. Emily Hammer from the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur from Harvard University have been studying them and creating a dataset from what they learned.

The National Archives are located in the Meritex Ridgeview Mining District under the city of Lenexa.

The two academics shared their findings in a paper published by Cambridge University Press. A formal printed copy of the paper will be published next month; the university press posted an online version in March.

Hammer, assistant professor of archaeology and digital humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, said that anytime she and her colleague needed records for their study, they made formal requests to the National Archives office in Greenbelt, Maryland; the National Archives then arranged shipment of the records from its underground Lenexa facility.

Storage temperatures at the Lenexa facility are kept at 35 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve the integrity of old film — hence the nickname “Ice Cube.”

Researchers Emily Hammer and Jason Ur conducted the study of the photographs in Lenexa. Photo courtesy of Emily Hammer

Hammer said she and Ur, professor of archaeology and director of the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis, spent four years studying the records before publishing the study.

“In the beginning — because there was no index for these things, and they were stored offsite — we would go to the National Archives, we would just have to order rolls willy-nilly,” Hammer said. “And you could only order 10 of them at a time, and they have to be sent from Kansas to D.C. It’s a long process and it’s not something that you want to be ordering random rolls of film to find out whether they’re going to happen to contain the things that you’re interested in for your research.”

The records were classified until 1997, when the CIA transferred them to the National Archives for safe storage. Those storage chambers below the city of Lenexa are kept at 35 degrees to preserve the integrity of the old film.

“It’s really fun to look at these photos; they show some really beautiful places,” she said. “I’ve lived and traveled in many parts of the Middle East, and I know some of these places very well. It’s really cool to see what they looked like decades before I knew them.”

Creating a complete picture

The researchers compared film from a Corona satellite with the images from the U2 missions.

Their paper contains three case studies looking at prehistoric hunting structures in the deserts of eastern Jordan, irrigation system of a first-millennial B.C. empire in northern Iraq and marsh villages in southern Iraq.

Aerial images of a desert kite chain, a prehistoric hunting practice in the deserts of Jordan.

Their challenge: The only information available about the photographs are the images themselves. Although they know the photos were taken from 11 spy plane missions, they don’t have specifics to where those missions flew.

“We had to go through declassified CIA documents in order to even figure out which films are connected to which U2 aerial missions and which film rolls,” Hammer said.

To make the higher-resolution images more useful for future research, the professors compared the aerial photographs with low-resolution images taken from tracking cameras on those same planes.

Each mission had 800 to 1,000 low-resolution images and several hundred high-res images also taken from the plane. The tracking photos contained details on the location they were taken, so the researchers could compare the two sets of film and overlay it with recent images taken modern satellite imagery and digital mapping programs.

The purpose of the article was to develop an index and methodologies of the records so that other academics could more easily identify and request records for their own research.

“It’s great that we put together this index because it means that lots of other people are going to be able to use the photos now, for their own personal purposes and also for research purposes,” she said, adding that the images, roughly are useful for studying archaeology, 20th-century history and environmental change.